Goldilocks strategies for swimming ‘just right’ during the swim
Most people think of it as a guide for choosing a mattress and microwaving porridge, but “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” was actually written as an allegorical guide for pacing a triathlon. Make the proper choices and you’ll finish the race feeling satisfied and ready for a good night’s sleep. Choose wrong and you get eaten.
At least that’s how I remember it. Regardless, every triathlon competitor strives to find that “just right” effort zone that leads to the fastest overall finish. Let’s explore how to locate that sweet spot in the triathlon swim.
Swimming is by far the shortest leg of the triathlon, both in distance and in overall time. Egregious miscarriage of justice aside, the time difference between a max-effort swim and a comfy cruise is probably no more than a few minutes. Therefore, it’s tempting to just “get through” the swim instead of learning to pace it correctly. Don’t make that mistake.
It seems logical to allocate effort based on the assumption that the harder you swim, the more exhausted you’ll be for the bike and run. But there are additional factors in play:
- Each of the three legs uses a unique combination of muscles. Some swimming muscles won’t be needed later, so you can safely deplete them in the swim.
- Psychology affects perceived energy level and competitive focus. You may race better if you exit the water in front of your competition (or have their heels in sight), even if you’re more physically spent. Conversely, some athletes are inspired by knowing they have plenty of reserve energy to chase down their rivals from far behind.
- Transitions require an abrupt adjustment from aquatic to terrestrial propulsion. The slope and distance to the bike, as well as your wetsuit removal strategy are affected by how much energy you have in reserve after your final swim stroke. Some athletes (especially as we age) achieve a faster total time by slowing down during the last 20 meters of the swim or by walking the first few transition steps with a focus on establishing terrestrial breathing rhythms. Regardless, the best transitions are those that are well planned.
- Transitions also provide an opportunity for active recovery; you can swing your arms and shake out your legs as you run to your bike.
Masters swimmers have a huge advantage over non-Masters-swimmer triathletes. You know you’re well trained; use that confidence to propel you to your best effort. And use your experience to develop a race strategy that works for you.
I didn’t quite say it in those words, but I just implied that Goldilocks should choose the hard mattress and the hot porridge (i.e., work her curly-haired little tail off), because big bad Papa Bear is the alpha dog in this little pond. I’ll own that assertion, but with the caveat that intelligence must be applied along with brute strength to determine the king of the forest in this hideous jumble of mixed metaphors.
Let’s break it down:
Before the race
The foundational theorem behind any effective swim strategy is:
Technique > Fitness
Work on reducing drag, refining your sighting, swimming straight, and drafting well. The habit of swimming efficiently is the foundation that enables effort to result in speed.
Because triathlons require both steady and burst efforts:
- Perform workout sets that establish your awareness of sustainable speed for a given distance. In other words, work on learning and improving the maximum speed you can hold throughout the swim leg distance.
- During some of your long distance sets, add segments (25 to 100 yards/meters) of all-out sprinting, followed by an immediate return to your distance pace. Visualize holding a draft behind a swimmer who suddenly speeds up, or imagine chasing down a leading draft group to establish a position in their pace line.
Practice your transitions so you know what works best for you after swimming at race pace. Train yourself to stand, run, drink/eat, and change into your cycling kit while you’re puffing and panting from your swim effort. Time yourself to see whether backing off at the end of the swim or during the transition run improves your overall transition efficiency. (It probably won’t, but at least you’ll know for sure.)
On race day
Scope out the racecourse. Identify bottlenecks where you’ll want to be separated from clumps of swimmers. Take note of sun position or obstructions that might indicate good locations to pass someone unnoticed. Memorize the turn angles around buoys so you won’t have to stop for a sighting as you change directions.
Then, WARM UP! If you can’t do a sufficient in-water warm-up, at least do some jogging or calisthenics to get your body ready to race.
Then, my dear Goldilocks, the real porridge testing begins. Where you position yourself for the race start depends on how you feel about:
- The scrum—If you enjoy being immersed in flying elbows, flailing feet, and what feels like the thrashing of six-thousand piranhas, then by all means position yourself in the center of the combatants. Personally, I’ve had far better luck starting to the side and avoiding the clog, even though I’ve had to swim farther and sometimes work harder to chase down the pack. For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than getting stuck behind a bunch of inexperienced swimmers who erroneously think they need to be in the thick of the race.
- Your sprint speed—If you feel you’ve got the sprint speed to get away quickly and can outrun the scrum, then get up in the front and channel your inner Jesse Owens. Remember that many triathletes can maintain a fast speed for a few hundred meters but will then fade to a much slower pace.
- Your draft target—If you know who you intend to follow (or race against), position yourself near them. This strategy doesn’t always work out; everybody has the same cap and wetsuits tend to resemble each other, so it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. But if you can find your draft early, it’ll save you from grueling effort later and will result in a faster overall race.
Your sustainable-pace distance sets and burst-sprint sets will serve you well as your race strategy evolves. When you find yourself separated from other racers, you’ll want to put your head down and crank at your maximum groove. When you’re in groups, there are times you’ll need to radically alter your pace, tapping into your sprint reserves to:
- Switch packs—If you spot another individual or group who is swimming slightly faster (or straighter), you’ll need to sprint across the gap to catch their draft.
- Respond to competitor tactics—If the person you’ve been following decides to shake you, respond to their speed/direction change immediately to continue to take advantage of the draft. (Note: This requires paying attention. Don’t ever let your mind wander during a race!)
- Drop a competitor—Conversely, if you want to drop your own drafter, the more radically you can change speed (and the longer you can sustain the burst), the higher your likelihood of getting away.
The bottom line is that you can eat any porridge and sleep in any bed you want, if you’ve trained, planned, and prepared properly. Ask your coach for specific tri workout tips and approach your training with confidence, and you’ll be ready to get your next race “just right!”